Grace Under Pressure

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With a passion for food and a deter- mination to succeed, Graziella Battista is winning customers and critics alike

Graziella Battista can’t recall a time in her life when food wasn’t a huge part of it. Raised in an Italian family that arrived in Montreal in the 1950s, she grew up watching her parents make their own sausages, salumi and prosciutto. And, to this day, she lovingly remembers watching in awe as her mother created an assortment of dishes in the kitchen, from fresh pasta, to deboning and stuffing fowl.

Considering her upbringing, it’s not surprising that even though she graduated from Concordia University and studied at McGill, her passion for food led her directly to a career in the restaurant business. For the past two decades she’s been making a name for herself on the Montreal dining scene, initially as chef/owner of Il Sole on fashionable Saint Laurent, and currently as chef of Graziella’s, an elegant northern-Italian-style eatery she owns with husband, Pierre Julien, and partner, Alexandre Gagnon, in old Montreal.

“A lot of people don’t follow their passion and stick to a job that brings a weekly salary,” says the 40-something Battista of her career choice. “That wasn’t satisfactory for me.” Armed with a degree in economics and marketing, she dabbled in catering before opening Il Sole in 1994, which she ran for 13 years, before selling it in 2006. Battista then took some time to reflect on her next move and, less than a year later, decided to buy a building in Old Montreal, with a big concept in mind.

“There was something here that said, this is the place,” she recalls. “The architecture was interesting and both facades in the front and back had lots of light, which makes it extremely pleasant to work in.” The three-storey building features 80 seats on the first two floors, three private rooms for 18, and a space atop the restaurant, with its own kitchen, that accommodates 80 for sit-down meals and 150 for standing receptions.

Open for lunch and dinner, Graziella attracts a wide spectrum of customers — from locals and tourists to business regulars who come in three times a week. The menu features a sophisticated northern Italian vibe, even though her parents hail from the south. “I think the northern influences accommodate our climate here,” she says, pointing to the long winter/fall/spring seasons. As a result, she showcases pastas, braised meats and risotti. “I use a lot of local products, exceptionally good meats, trout from Ontario and Quebec and fish from the Atlantic and Pacific.

Staging in Emilia Romagna, the culinary capital of Italy, has given Battista “a true appreciation of working with exceptional food quality. Italians are known for being passionate and proud of their work,” she says. “And when you work with good quality ingredients, it’s difficult to make mistakes.”

Like many of today’s chefs, she’s a big fan of organic products. “I work with an organic farm for most of my meats, all my vegetables and some of my fruits,” she says, adding that educated customers are fuelling a great deal of positive change. “I’ve seen an evolution in the last 15 years. People are more conscious of what they eat and they can tell the difference with quality.” Over the years, Battista says she’s made it a point to educate her customers about seasonality. “For example, whenever customers would come into the restaurant in January and order a tomato salad, I’d let them know it wasn’t the right time of the year. ‘Do you see any tomatoes growing in Quebec right now,’ I’d ask them? We love to use products that are in season.”

Battista defines her culinary style as authentic. “I try to respect the authenticity of recipes, with a contemporary and personalized touch. With one sous chef and three assistants, the kitchen brigade has won accolades since the restaurant opened in 2007.

And though many people profess to be eating lighter, Battista’s clientele is passionate about pasta, which is among the restaurant’s best-selling plates. “They’re elaborate, and they’re all homemade. The rabbit ragù I serve takes two days to make, “ she says, explaining the laborious process of boning it, marinating it for 24 hours and then lovingly simmering it. “You can tell the dish has been worked. It’s not whipped up in two minutes.”

But she’s quick to point out her pasta dishes are very healthy because of the quality of products she uses. For example, the popular gnocchi is made with ricotta instead of potatoes, and her ravioli features healthy items such as duck. “Pasta is such a diverse product; you can create and change flavours so easily. It’s interesting for me to come up with different recipes.”

Certainly as chef/owner of a successful restaurant, Battista has a great deal on her plate. But through the past two decades, she’s managed to juggle myriad roles, including that of mother to 10-year-old son, Victor. “It hasn’t been easy,” she admits, pointing to the late hours and the countless evenings spent away from him. “You do sacrifice a lot, including sleep,” she quips. “No matter how late you come home at night you still have to get up at 6:30, prepare breakfast and get your child ready for school. There are a lot of sacrifices, but you do it because it’s the life you’ve chosen.”

Though female chefs remain in the minority, Battista believes progress is being made, albeit slowly. “It’s finally starting to change,” says admits. “There are now several three-star, Michelin-rated female chefs in Europe. But, unfortunately, there are many kitchens where women are treated differently from men and there’s no place for that. Men and women are capable of doing the same thing,” she says.

Battista also has a message for women who are looking to take that bold step into the kitchen — never give up. “There’s always a position available somewhere. But you have to be persistent and determined. You have to knock on the door until someone says yes.”

Photography by Will Lew

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